The History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark, and Parts Adjacent, vol. 4

Allen, Thomas

1827

The House of Commons.

 

In the year , it was deemed expedient to enlarge the present house of commons, in order to make room for the Irish members, which, by the act of union, were entitled to a seat in the British parliament.

When the wainscotting was taken down for this purpose, the walls were found to be covered with oil paintings, many of which were in a high state of preservation.

Dr. Charles Gower, of the physicians to the , communicated a knowledge of this discovery to Mr. John Thomas Smith, an eminent artist, who was so much pleased with these most beautiful specimens of ancient art, that he solicited and obtained permission to copy them for the purpose of engraving. This work, after incessant and most laborious toil, he accomplished, amidst the noise and dust of the workmen, who were not permitted to delay their work for the artist's accommodation. These facts are mentioned for the purpose of more successfully referring the reader to the work mentioned below, in the plates

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of which are not merely delineated the outline of the several subjects, whether on the stone or glass, but the colours are actually matched; and they exhibit every tint which is known in the art of staining glass.

Several grotesque paintings, which were found in chapel, served as supporters to the different coats of arms which adorned the frieze. A close resemblance may be discovered between some of those monstrous combinations and the figures which were employed in the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

There are also some specimens of sculpture very elegant and beautiful, which give us a very high idea of the sumptuousness and variety of the ornaments, with which the chapel of St. Stephen was formerly enriched. The foliage which twines round some of the columns appears to vie in beauty with the decorations of the Corinthian capital.

Among the specimens of the Gothic frieze are some which no Grecian artist would have blushed to own.

Mr. Nightingale justly remarks,

that such exquisite productions of art should have been so shamefully neglected is matter of surprise to those only who are unacquainted with the exact nature and extent of the prejudice, which, at the time of the Reformation, swelled the hearts of the reformers. The connection which these paintings were supposed to have with the ancient superstition, was a sufficient cause for their neglect, and even their total destruction. When, therefore, the sanctuary of devotion was converted into the present house of commons, the exuberant decorations on the windows and the walls, were probably defaced without scruple or remorse. Not even a tradition remained of their existence; nor is it probable that they would ever have been known, if the union with Ireland, by necessitating an enlargement of the house, had not caused them to be brought to light. Something singular, therefore, is attached to the history, the preservation, and the discovery of these curious vestiges of art, which belong to a period comparatively barbarous, and exhibiting an almost total dearth in embellishments of genius and taste.

It is clear, however, that in the reign of Edward III. the period alluded to, the arts were not totally neglected; that the method of painting in oil was practised, even at that time, with no ordinary success; and that the genius of elegant and fanciful design was then alive.

At the alteration and enlargement of the house of commons, which brought these relics of the arts to light, the entire side walls were taken down, except the buttresses that supported the ancient roof, and thrown back, by which more seats were procured. The chapel, as finished by Edward III. was of such great beauty, that we

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can scarcely refrain from regretting that it should have been defaced by these alterations.

The interior walls, on which were the gilding and profusion of ornament above-mentioned, appear to have been divided into compartments of Gothic, but not inelegant forms; each having a border of small gilt roses, and the recesses covered with paintings.

At the east end, including about a of the length of the chapel, which part exhibited various tokens of having been once inclosed for the altar, the walls and roofs were completely covered with gilt and painted decorations; and presented, even in their mutilated state, a beautiful relic of the fine arts. The gilding was remarkably solid, and highly burnished, and the colours of the paintings vivid, being both apparently as fresh as in the year in which they were executed.

of the paintings, representing the adoration of the shepherds, had some merit, even in regard to the composition.

The west front of this venerable chapel is still nearly entire, but greatly defaced by the coating of plaster, which covers it. Under the direction of the late Mr. Wyatt, a new window was formed in the end, and pinnacles added, in the usual fantastic style of decoration, which mark the works of that architect; the window is merely constructed for show, as the modern ones which light the interior still exist in the middle of it.

The whole front of the commons, next to the street, was also rebuilt by the same architect, in its present Gothic style, and cased with stucco.

It shows a confused and ill-formed assemblage of towers, turrets, and pinnacles, jumbled together without taste or judgment; rendered the more offensive from the proximity of the abbey and the hall, and certainly not improved by the poverty-struck cloister subsequently appended to its basement, or by the more recent additions of Mr. Soane, which are, if possible, in a worse style.

Beneath the house, in passages or apartments appropriated to various uses, are considerable remains, in great perfection, of an under chapel of curious workmanship; and an entire side of a cloister, the roof of which is scarcely surpassed by the exquisite beauty and richness of Henry the 's chapel in the neighbouring abbey.

The interior of the house of commons has nothing very striking to recommend it; convenience, not ornament, appears to have been the great object of the government in the application and enlargement of this ancient chapel to the use of the legislature.

It is still rather too small; but is nevertheless, peculiarly adapted to its use. Along the sides and west end runs a handsome gallery for the accommodation of members and strangers. The galleries are supported by slender iron pillars, crowned with gilt Corinthian capitals. The walls are wainscotted to the ceiling.

The speaker's chair stands at some distance from the wall; and

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is highly ornamented with gilding, having the royal arms at the top. Before the chair is a table at which sit the clerks.

In the centre of the room, between the table and the bar, is a capacious area.

The seats for the members occupy each side, and both ends of the room, with the exception of the passages. There are rows of seats, rising in gradation above each other, with short backs, and green morocco cushions.

The seat on the floor, on the right hand of the speaker, is sometimes called the treasury bench, because there many of the members of the administration usually sit. The side immediately opposite is occupied by the leading members of the opposition.

When the members go to the house, they usually pass through hall; and there are, under the same roof several good coffee-rooms. which are resorted to, not only by the members, but by the public in general; and particularly in term time, when they are crowded with barristers and others having business in the courts of law.

On the east side, adjoining to the hall, is the edifice called

 
 
Footnotes:

[] Antiquities of Westminster; the old palace; St. Stephen's chapel, (now the House of Commons,) &c. &c. containing two hundred and forty-six engravings of topographical subjects, of which one hundred land twenty-two no longer remain.-By John Thomas Smith.

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 Title Page
 Dedication
CHAPTER I: Site, local divisions, and government of the City of Westminster; history of the Abbey; Coronation Ceremonies; and lists of the Abbots and Deans
CHAPTER II: Westminster Abbey, and Description of the Tombs and Monuments
CHAPTER III: History and Topography of St. Margaret's Parish
CHAPTER IV: History and Topography of St. John's Parish, Westminster
CHAPTER V: History and Topography of the parish of St. Martin's in the Fields, Westminster
CHAPTER VI: History and Topogrpahy of the parish of St. James, Westminster
CHAPTER VII: History and Topography of the Parish of St. Anne, Westminster
CHAPTER VIII: History and Topography of the parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden
CHAPTER IX: History and Topography of the Parish of St. Mary-le-strand
CHAPTER X: History and Topogrpahy of the parish of St. Clement Danes
CHAPTER XI: History and Topography of the parish of st. George, Hanover Square
CHAPTER XII: History and Topography of the Precinct of the Savoy
CHAPTER XIII: History and Topography of the Inns of Court
CHAPTER XIV: History and Topography of the Precincts of the Charter-house and Ely Place, and the Liberty of the Rolls
 CHAPTER XV: Historical Notices of the Borough of Southwark
CHAPTER XVI: History and Topography of the Parish of St. Olave, Southwark
CHAPTER XVII: History and Topography of the parish of St. John, Southwark
CHAPTER XVIII: History and Topography of the parish of St. Thomas, Southwark
CHAPTER XIX: History and Topogrpahy of the parish of St. George's, Southwark
CHAPTER XX: History and Topography of St. Saviour's Parish
CHAPTER XXI: History and Topography of the parist of Christ-church in the County of Surrey
 CHAPTER XXII: A List of the Principal Books, &c that have been published in Illustration of the Antiquities, History, Topography, and other subjects treated of in this Work
 Addenda et Corrigienda
 Postscript